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Cognitive Impairment from Benzodiazepine Use: Memory Loss, Dementia, & Healing

Benzodiazepines (benzos) are a class of prescription medications that include such drugs as Ativan (lorazepam), Xanax (alprazolam), Valium (diazepam), and Klonopin (clonazepam).1 Benzos are sedatives that act as CNS depressants and are frequently prescribed to manage such conditions as anxiety, insomnia, seizures, and muscle spasms.1

Benzos also have the potential for misuse and present a risk of tolerance, dependence, and addiction. especially if taken for longer periods.1

Misuse of benzos is strongly associated with risk for other prescription drug misuse and substance use disorders, particularly prescription opioids and opioid use disorder.2 When taken along with opioids, it’s likely benzos are used to enhance the positive subjective effects (e.g., euphoria) received from opioids.2 Taking benzodiazepines in combination with other central nervous depressants—like alcohol or opioids—increases the risk of life-threatening overdose.3

What Do Benzos Do to the Brain?

Benzos affect the central nervous system and increase the activity of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which helps to calm an overexcited central nervous system.1,4 When a person takes benzos, they will experience sedation, as well as feel calmer in general, which makes benzos helpful in treating insomnia and anxiety.

When people use benzos, they can experience side effects, including cognitive impairment and increased risk of falls, especially in the elderly.5

Furthermore, when a person overdoses on benzos, they may show symptoms including:2,4

  • Confusion.
  • Intense drowsiness.
  • Poor coordination.
  • Impaired reflexes.
  • Depressed breathing.
  • Hypoxia (decreased oxygen to the brain, which may have short- and long-term mental effects and could possibly lead to brain injury).
  • Coma.

Death from benzodiazepine overdose alone is rare, although more likely when benzos are used with opioids and other CNS depressants, such as alcohol or sleeping pills (e.g., Ambien).5 There are other potential dangers of long-term use of benzodiazepines, including dependence, addiction, and impaired cognition.6 Furthermore, when a person who is dependent on benzos abruptly stops taking them, they may experience seizures and other potentially serious complications from benzo withdrawal.1,4

Find Out If Your Insurance Plan Covers Benzodiazepine Addiction Treatment 

American Addiction Centers can help people recover from benzodiazepine misuse and benzodiazepine use disorders (AUDs). To find out if your insurance covers treatment for you or your loved one at an American Addiction Centers facility, click here, or fill out the form below. Your information is kept 100% confidential. You can also click here to find a rehab near me.

Can Benzodiazepines Cause Cognitive Impairment?

Recent research suggests that the long-term therapeutic use of benzodiazepines can result in cognitive impairment.6 Presumably long-term misuse of benzodiazepines would also result in impairment, but citation 5 doesn’t talk specifically about that population (and we can’t simply extrapolate). A recent study showed that more than 20% of people who used benzos long-term had some overall cognitive decline.7 The reasons for this are not certain, but it is believed to be in part due to the inhibition of the GABA neurotransmitter, which may play a role in cognitive functioning.6

In addition, benzos impact another important area of the brain, the cholinergic system. This is connected to the cortex and hippocampus and is involved in memory storage and retrieval.6 In addition, both the cholinergic system and the GABA receptors are associated with executive functioning, learning, memory, and attention.6

For older adults, there is concern that long-term therapeutic benzo use can increase the risk of dementia.8 Reviews of research indicate that people who take benzos have a 1.5-2 times greater likelihood of developing dementia.9 Other research studies have similar findings, with benzo use being associated with the increased risk of developing dementia, and that long-acting benzos, such as lorazepam, bromazepam, diazepam, chlordiazepoxide, and clorazepate put a person at increased risk of developing dementia.9

Brain Healing After Long-Term Benzo Use

Long-term use of benzos is likely to have a negative impact on a person’s cognition, and research is unclear about the extent a person can recover after stopping use, both during withdrawal and post-abstinence. For example, one study indicated that after 10 months of abstinence from benzo use, people did show some recovery in cognitive functioning,7

If you or your loved one is struggling with the use of benzos, getting help through some form of treatment as soon as possible is important as it may help you avoid many symptoms and struggles, including cognitive impairment. When a person has developed a dependency on benzos entering a detox program helps manage any potentially negative outcomes.

There are many options for benzo abuse treatment, and rehab programs may include detox, a 24/7 inpatient program that offers around-the-clock supervision and oversight, or an outpatient program where you can receive treatment and assessments and only stay for a few hours each week and go home at night.10

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